I was in fifth grade when I bought my first vintage piece. I marched straight into school, certain that my sartorial savvy would wow my classmates. Instead, I ended up getting bullied at recess. It was a scene straight from a grim coming-of-age movie. “Nice dress!” a catty group of girls who had been harassing me for weeks taunted, “You look like a grandma!”
I can now objectively confirm that the dress was terrible. An ’80s floral monstrocity, it hung off my bony frame, puffing awkwardly in the shoulders and ballooning out in the skirt. But back then, it was thrilling to escape the realm of Aéropostale and American Eagle for something a little more unique. Collecting vintage clothes allowed me to play dress up, exploring different styles and identities as I surfed through eras.
You might assume that this episode shamed my affinity for weird clothes out of me, but it only made me more determined to stand out. Fortunately, my taste got better as I got older, and throughout high school I amassed a sizeable collection of vintage pieces, from 1960s mod sundresses to a giant military surplus parka. As a shy kid whose chest pounded just from answering a question in front of the class, it was a way for me to express my individuality on my own terms, as well as a common interest that fostered friendship.
Only recently, however, did I realize how impactful the simple decision to buy used instead of new clothing can be. The fashion industry has a host of environmental and ethical issues surrounding it. Just think of the garment factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing 1,134 people, or the 80 pounds of clothing that the average American throws away every year. And it’s not just fast fashion retailers like H&M that are taking the heat for producing their products unethically—luxury brands have also come under fire for using forced labor. Prada, for example, scored nine out of 100 on a scale ranking companies on their efforts to eliminate forced labor from their supply chains.
With this in mind, it’s nearly impossible to determine which brands we can shop from with a clear conscience. But, even with that knowledge, buying new clothes—period—is detrimental to the environment. The only way to truly opt out of this dangerous system of consumerism is to buy pre-owned clothing. The fashion industry aims, above all else, to make money. Fair enough. What isn’t is the way that it goes about this: by increasing the number of fashion seasons by an absurd amount (there are now an estimated 52 micro-seasons a year) and producing poorly-made clothing to ensure that people’s closets will have a high turnover rate. The result is that consumers are buying increasingly more clothing, more often, just to keep up.
The clear escape from this endless, frantic cycle is to buy vintage. It drives me crazy when people complain about how everything was better in the good old days, but in this case it’s true: Older clothing is better made. I can personally attest to its sturdiness and fine craftsmanship, especially considering the fact that some vintage pieces have survived as long as 100 years without falling apart. There’s a much smaller environmental cost to buying vintage than there is to buying new clothing, plus time-tested silhouettes are pretty much guaranteed to never go out of style. Forget that weird cold-shoulder top that you’ll hate in a month—this little black dress will last you a lifetime. Although you’ll find that vintage clothes can be a tad more expensive than fast fashion, the difference in their lifespans will make up for the extra cash you’ll spend on vintage pieces. Think of it as an investment.
At a time when society is finally beginning to come to terms with the destruction we’ve wreaked on the planet, trying to make a difference on an individual level can feel futile. You may not single-handedly save the earth by doing so, but a small step in the right direction is progress nonetheless. After all, if my awkward fifth-grade self could do it, so can you. Do your conscience—and your wallet—a favor and buy vintage.
Featured Image by Ally Mozeliak / Heights Editor